Our kids have been away from their classrooms for months that sometimes feel like years. We worry about the lessons they might be missing, the academic ground they might have lost. Meanwhile, many kids worry about whether they’ll ever be able to hang out with their friends again. When we can’t be social, how do we practice social skills? And what can we do for children who, because of developmental differences, were already struggling socially?
Child psychologist Stephanie Mihalas, who directs The Center for Well Being in West L.A., says that being away from school can impact social skills for children across the age spectrum. Younger children miss the opportunity to practice taking turns, sharing and standing in line. Older kids and teens miss out on skill builders such as how to work on collaborative group projects. True, there is sometimes interaction on Zoom, but it isn’t quite the same. “There’s a different kind of energy and vibe when you’re in the classroom, but when you’re over Zoom, even if they put people into different Zoom rooms, that kind of collective cooperation changes,” Mihalas says.
You might not be able to change your child’s virtual learning experience, but there are things that you can do at home to help maintain – and even build – important social skills.
Given that most families have been cooped up together for months, you might not be chomping at the bit to be social together. Psychologist Amy Wilson, clinical director of Autism Learning Partners in Laguna Hills, urges you to do it anyway. “Give children time each day to play with you and with their siblings,” she says.
1. Play together. If you want a little breathing room, consider playing online games together, but in separate parts of the house. Mihalas says that games where kids create their own avatars and adventures can give them an outlet for self-expression. And research has shown that Dungeons and Dragons can improve social skills and mental health.
2. Exercise your imaginations. When you’re together at the dinner table, skip the traditional conversations about everyone’s day. “Likely, everyone was there,” says Mihalas. Instead, focus on different questions. Begin a statement and ask everyone to fill in the blanks. “I wish a genie would bring me ….” “I wish I had a dream about ….”
3. Take a walk. A mindful after-dinner walk will take your interactions into a new setting. Get everyone on a mission to name four things you see, three things you hear, two things you smell, etc. to practice collaboration and turn-taking.
The goal of all three activities is to get the whole family having fun together, so that this social-skills practice doesn’t feel like a chore. Building a few new traditions can also build skills that last a lifetime.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.